WASHINGTON (CN) — Justice Clarence Thomas faced new criticism Friday following a report detailing his connections to the Koch network — a political organization supporting one of the biggest cases in the high court’s upcoming term.
According to ProPublica, Thomas took a private jet flight to Palm Springs in 2018 to attend the network’s private conference. At the event, the conservative justice served as a fundraising draw, participating in private dinners for the organization’s donors.
Attendees who got the chance to dine with Thomas and other high-profile guests are said to give millions to the Koch organization each year. Just to attend the yearly summit, donors must give at least $100,000 a year, according to the report.
Koch network executives told ProPublica that these dinners were a fundraising strategy. The donors would get access to high-profile guests to encourage them to continue their support for the organization.
The Koch network and its founders, billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, have put many consequential cases before the court, including one of the biggest the court will hear in their upcoming term.
The high court will be reviewing a four-decade-old precedent that governs agency deference. Chevron v. NRDC has long been a target of conservative advocacy groups opposed to “big government.” The precedent gives government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency the ability to interpret laws enacted by Congress. For example, coal companies challenged the EPA’s use of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions using Chevron.
In 2005, Thomas defended Chevron, but years later his perspective would change. In 2020, the conservative justice wrote a dissent disavowing his own majority opinion supporting Chevron.
The Palm Springs flight was absent from Thomas’ 2018 annual financial disclosure forms. Although the justices’ compliance with ethics rules is murky, the high court is bound by federal disclosure laws.
That year Thomas disclosed speaking events in New York City and Texas, but not the Palm Springs trip.
Unlike other members of the judiciary, the justices do not have an ethics code. However, in April, all nine justices signed on to a statement that said they should avoid speaking events that could give the appearance of impropriety.
“But in deciding whether to speak before any group, a Justice should consider whether doing so would create an appearance of impropriety in the minds of reasonable members of the public,” the letter states. “There is an appearance of impropriety when an unbiased and reasonable person who is aware of all relevant facts would doubt that the Justice could fairly discharge his or her duties."
Thomas’ attendance at the Koch network fundraiser is coupled with his failure to disclose the trip. Ethics experts called on the Judicial Conference — the rulemaking group for federal courts — to refer Thomas’ disclosure lapses to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
"The law is very clear,” Gabe Roth, executive director at Fix the Court, said in an email. “The Judicial Conference must refer to the Attorney General 'any individual' for which there is 'reasonable cause to believe' that 'information required to be reported' in their disclosure has not been reported. We're far past 'reasonable cause' territory.”
Thomas’ failure to disclose other gifts from billionaires has already been reported to the Judicial Conference, however no action has been taken by the group.
"The Conference's Committee on Financial Disclosure appears complicit in Thomas' defiance of federal law,” Roth said. “It has sat on information about his disclosure omissions for five months — remember, a private plane is not a 'facility' exempt from reporting — even as more damning details come out.”
This is not the first time Thomas has been under the microscope for failing to disclose private jet flights. ProPublica released a report in April that uncovered Thomas’ connections to Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. The Texas real estate mogul took the conservative justice on dozens of luxury vacations and private jet flights — all of which went undisclosed.
Crow also bought a property from Thomas that was never reported and paid for his grandnephew’s private school education.
According to ProPublica, the Palm Springs event was just one instance the Koch brothers rubbed elbows with the conservative justice. The trio all took regular trips to an exclusive all-male retreat in California, Bohemian Grove. Thomas is said to attend the camp as Crow’s guest. Other attendees at the retreat include Blackwater founder Erik Prince, George H.W. Bush, and Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi.Follow @KelseyReichmann
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